Damascus, June 2010
It has been a very long time since Safiyeh Mukhles saw Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, a powerful symbol of the city in which she was born 66 years ago. Having fled Palestine for Syria as a child, Dr. Mukhles has spent her life at a small and yet unbridgeable distance from the city of her birth.
As an adult, this strong and intelligent woman has devoted her career to serving the residents of Yarmouk, the largest Palestine refugee camp in Syria. Today, when she visits the UNRWA health centre where she worked before retiring six years ago, Dr. Mukhles is stopped every five metres by wellwishers and familiar faces. “I am proud of my nationality. I am proud of my career as a doctor. I am proud of having worked at UNRWA, and I am proud of having lent a hand to my fellow Palestinians. All of this taught me a lot about my country and about myself”, she affirms, with a wide smile.
Throughout her long career, Dr. Mukhles has demonstrated an unflappable commitment to her her role within the refugee community. She believes that by applying knowledge to help ordinary people, “the doctor who enjoys his or her job plays a very important role in society”. By being who she is and doing what she knows best, this doctor has made a difference in the lives of thousands of people.
Sitting in her beautifully decorated apartment, surrounded by family photographs, Dr. Mukhles recalls a difficult but enjoyable childhood. As a young student at an UNRWA school, young Safiyeh’s favorite subject was math, but as a woman aspiring to join a male-dominated engineering sector, her hopes were stymied. The next natural choice was study medicine and specialize in pediatrics. “I have always liked children; the way the see the world, it triggers my emotions”, she says. “Really, I identify with them”. She confesses that combining her professional passion with her duties as a wife and mother of four has not always been easy. “I cherish every single moment I spent with my children and in the company of my husband. This is more important than the money I could have made working after-hours at a private clinic”.
Ultimately, says Dr Mukhles, “solidarity is everything”. In this spirit, she remains determined to help the situation of those in the camps. For the past four years, she has been working for the local Red Crescent Society, which receives between 30 and 40 children a day. Many of them are refugees from Somalia or Iraq who have endured deplorable suffering, something that triggers memories of the not so distant past, and of so many Palestinians she has helped. “Thirty years ago, it was very common to see dehydrated children, people who were really poor. Now, health conditions and the standard of living are higher”.
Clearly, after a very successful and fulfilling working life, Dr Mukhles is not yet ready to throw in the towel; there are plenty of things to come for this active and engaged lady.
Text and photograph by Diego Gomez-Pickering